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Jewish Journal

Tourists Pass on Israeli Passover

This year, there'll be an exodus of Israelis from the Promised Land.


by Jessica Steinberg

March 7, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Clouds are reflected off Israel's Dead Sea as the sun rises over the Grand Nirvana Resort hotel. For Israelis who are not among the many traveling abroad for Passover, resorts at the Dead Sea are a popular alternative. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

Clouds are reflected off Israel's Dead Sea as the sun rises over the Grand Nirvana Resort hotel. For Israelis who are not among the many traveling abroad for Passover, resorts at the Dead Sea are a popular alternative. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

It's known as the holiday of freedom, but Passover this year in Israel will likely be remembered for its sense of restriction.

With a worldwide recession in progress and would-be tourists still wary of airline travel because of possible terrorist attacks, there will be far fewer tourists eating matzah in Israel this spring.

While some hotels are booked for the Passover holiday, others are expecting the worst during what is usually a peak season for the Israeli tourist industry.

"I think Americans aren't coming, and money doesn't seem to be the issue," said Zvi Lapian at Platinum Travel. "To me, it's very sad.

This is Lapian's fifth year arranging Passover week vacations at the glatt kosher Caesar Premier Resort hotel in the Dead Sea, and he only has about 172 rooms booked at $999 per person.

Most of the guests will be Israeli, but about 20 percent off the visitors will come from England.

A general manager at one of the higher-end hotels in Tel Aviv said he expected a much tougher season than in previous years. With Tel Aviv tourism geared toward incoming traffic from abroad, all issues of marketing depend on outside factors.

"This is a period when we're trying to understand what's happening," he said. "It's hard to know with all the turmoil. People have to be calm to make reservations and that depends on the political situation."

For Israelis, Passover is usually a time for family travel, particularly those who are not observant and don't mind missing the family seder. With the kids off from school for two weeks and most companies offering half days during the holiday's four intermediate days, it's the perfect time to take a trip.

But these Israelis aren't heading back to Egypt, nor are they planning on exploring the land of milk and honey. Clearly, Israelis aren't interested in swimming in the Red Sea like their ancestors.

Instead, they'll be driving to Ben-Gurion International Airport and taking off for foreign locales. New York, London, Paris, Holland and China are all popular Passover destinations, according to El Al, Israel's national airline.

From mid-March until mid-April, El Al will have 72 flights to 16 destinations. There are three additional flights each week to New York, four more to London, three to Milan and two to Amsterdam.

"They want to go places where the weather is springlike, where they can forget their troubles," said an El Al spokesperson. "They want a great vacation."

According to ISSTA, a large Israeli travel agency that caters to the student segment, around 250,000 Israelis will leave Israel for Passover. Around 60 percent of the outgoing traffic will be after the single seder night -- some traditions can't be broken, after all -- and others will go away for the entire holiday.

The average cost of a trip? Around $800 per person, depending on the destination. Mediterranean trips to Turkey and Greece are the cheapest, followed by Europe, with the United States costing the most per person.

For Israelis who like staying closer to home, whether for financial reasons or religious, few are making elaborate plans for the holiday's intermediate days.

Unlike previous years, when Israelis went to relax in the Sinai Desert or explore the Petra caves in Jordan during Passover, no one is visiting Israel's neighbors this year. There may be peace with Egypt, the nation that figures so prominently in the Passover narrative, but it's not quiet enough on the border to venture a boat ride on the Nile.

"Pesach used to be a very popular time to go into Sinai," said a spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which organizes local hiking trips. "But we're not doing that right now, because no one wants to go."

Instead, the society, like other local tour companies, is focusing on tourism inside Israel.

All the tours down south to Ein Gedi, the Ramon Crater, as well as up north to the upper Galilee and Golan, are almost fully booked. With the average cost of $15 to $30 for an adult and $12 to $25 for a child, depending on the length of the trip, it's a bargain, and that's good news for many Israelis right now.

Down at the Dead Sea, the 22 mineral-rich waters still attract tourists, mainly Israelis, because it is far from any security threat, and Israelis can still drive there safely.

Safe roads and distance from possible trouble spots are taken very seriously these days. No one wants to run into trouble, and that has made resort areas like the Dead Sea and Eilat still popular for Israelis.

"Freedom of movement is an important factor," Lapian said. "People feel a bit safer at the Dead Sea, but they won't drive on certain roads to get here even though there haven't been any problems."

In fact, the Hyatt hotel at the Dead Sea is fully booked for Passover, with 50 percent of the guests from Europe and the rest from Israel. Many are family units that book 20 to 40 rooms and stay for the entire week.

"I think this particular segment isn't sensitive to the situation because they figure they have to celebrate Pesach anyway," Hyatt Manager Arie Aizenshtat said. "And for them, celebrating in Israel is the most important thing. There's a logic to it."

In Jerusalem reservations are being made, albeit slowly, at the capital city's top hotels.

"If someone could tell me what's going to happen with peace, I could tell you what's going to happen with my bookings," said Norman Rafelson, the general manager of the David Citadel Hotel, formerly the Hilton, in Jerusalem.

By mid-February, the five-star hotel had more than 100 bookings for 10-night stays during Passover, which put the hotel at 50 percent of its hoped-for 80 percent occupancy rate.

"I think we're prepared for a little bit less this Pesach," Rafelson said. "I thought bookings would have picked up earlier, but everyone's waiting for the last minute.''

For now, Israelis will be celebrating the holiday of freedom, of spring and of matzahs in destinations far and wide. And next year? Maybe in Jerusalem.

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